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Saturday, December 31, 2016

Virginia Woolf, reader

We are reading Hermione Lee's biography, Virginia Woolf. I loved the idea of a chapter on reading (chapter 23, called "Reading") , enjoyed and in many ways agreed with Ellen about it, and yet found myself ultimately disappointed, despite some of the small gems that emerged. This is a chapter as much about writing as reading, about reading as the prelude to or part of the dance with writing. Of course, reading is inevitably always that (except for the rare reader who never writes) but I suppose I had hoped for a chapter that dealt wholly with Woolf as reader and what she read. After all, the book as whole is about the writer.

I say this because you can learn (or end up against a wall of mystery which is informative in its own way) about a person from the books they return to: the touchstone books. I was aware of this in the two figures I've done some intense biographical research on, Dorothy Day and Bonhoeffer. I'll stick to Day in this instance. In reading her journals, which span 50 years, I learned that Day was a great, avid reader. She loved and learned from books and like Woolf and other readers she had a strong emotional response to books: they were real to her. Over and over she returned to certain books: Queechy by Susan Warner (unreadable to us but she loved it), The Brother's Karamazov (she had quotes by memory and leaned into them deeply), even Austen, especially, perhaps, Mansfield Park. These books wove themselves into her soul, along with others. They may not all be to our taste but that only works to reinforce the alterity of other people from other times: they are not us. They receive books differently. We simply can't view them (narcissistically?) as mirrors of ourselves. 

But Lee, frustratingly, never tells us what were Woolf's touchstone books. What books did she return to again and again over the course of her life? She must have had such books or, if not, isn't that striking, notable, worth a mention? But we get no such inventory. ... I am simply bemused that Lee doesn't cover this.

In any case, Lee makes the point that for Woolf books influenced her as much as relationships (of course, that cries out for her to tell us which books were lifelong friends, which fell away, which were passing infatuations etc...). We learn that reading is Woolf's life's pleasure and her life's work ... except when, on the last page of the chapter, it's not. But mostly, it's a "despotic" desire. Woolf reacts to books emotionally--they shock her, they arouse her emotions, make her feel. I know well the emotions a great book can elicit, but also wonder how this connects with Woolf's mental illness, if there is some sort of extra-acuteness in Woolf, but Lee doesn't comment. 

I agreed strongly with Woolf's perception that in a book "we have to possess ... the whole" before we can grasp a single detail. Yes. Not that we can't grasp details as we go along on a first reading, but to really grasp a book, you do have to grasp the whole of it. 

Woolf read widely and diversely, as many of us do, and liked to mix second rate with first rate literature, as it helped her understand the best literature and its context better. The second rate helped "fertilize" her mind for the "great." I also appreciated that she hated that coteries with power in the publishing and literary worlds pushed second rate books, the middlebrow, as better than they are: we see that often in our times, needless to say, and we hear people rave about truly mediocre books that are the "thing." 

Reading can even be sexual for Woolf, and I agree with that. I also understood wanting a day perfectly fit together, like a cabinet with beautiful compartments, and her distress when her best writing time in the morning was interrupted--'wasted the cream of my brain on the telephone" or she had to use her best time to write books reviews to earn money. She could be describing my life: how to hang on to that prime writing time, when the brain is at its best, how to guard it? But this, of course, is about writing, not reading. 

We learn that as a writer, she wants a fiction that moves faster than the Victorian novel, that is more fluid, impressionistic, a shower of atoms. We learn that when she writes, she wants "a wall for the book from oneself." Lee takes this to mean Woolf wanted to write not too autobiographically. 

At the end of the chapter Lee talks about Woolf's belief that women read and write in a particular way about other women's lives. And Lee writes the cryptic last paragraph about Woolf having a moment of frustration with writing and by implication reading, what Lee calls a "moment of despair." I call the last paragraph a way to evade having to draw any conclusions or summation from a diffuse chapter that dances and weaves all too amorphously around Woolf's reading life.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Ten best rereads 2016

I spent much of the first half of the year revisiting books, poems, plays and essays I had read before, often delving back far into the past to revisit books I hadn't thought about much in decades. Because the reading was so far flung, I allowed all genres onto this list, which is assembled in no particular order. But I found myself particularly appreciating the following works:

1. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby: The more I read it, the better it gets. Fitzgerald packed a tremendous amount of satire and social commentary, not to mention Gothic elements, into this grand, romantic tragic story: it's amazing what can be pulled from a mere 55,000 words. The novel is reminding me more and more of Mary Poppins's black bag, out of which you might retrieve a table and chairs.  Lately--or earlier in the fall perhaps--I listened to the popular songs of circa 1920 that made it into the novel through snatches of lyrics, and they too add a layer of complexity ... And speaking of lyricism, Fitzgerald's language is extraordinary. The novel was also particularly prescient this year: almost a century later, Trump fits Tom Buchanan to a tee: a privileged racist sexist brutal bullying brainless baboon who gets away with anything due to his wealth.

2. Aldous Huxley, Brave New World: I first read this book when I was 11 or 12 and very sophisticated it seemed indeed. Now I read it as the simple satire it is, but still enjoy the vivid imagination Huxley invested in both his new world and the world of the Indian reservation. The questions it raises about what it mean to be human and how to constitute the good life remain relevant to us, and that buena vita must fall somewhere between the mindless, soulless ruthlessly conditioned consumer-hedonism of the new world and the tortured self-flagellation, sin and guilt of John the (Shakespeare-reading) Savage's world: maybe we would find that equilibrium on the island to which Bernard Marx is banished?

3.  William Wordsworth, "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud:" This very (deceptively) simple poem gave me great joy and solace last spring: Wordsworth fully communicated to me the joy he felt watching the thousands of daffodils, like a crowd of people, in front of a lake swaying in the breeze. The poem simply made me happy to read and reread.  More distant contenders that I enjoyed would include Byron's "She walks in Beauty like the Night" (what can be more simple than  she's-so-beautiful-with-her-long-black-hair-like-the-night-sky-and-eyes-like-stars, followed by a stanza in which the poet insists he knows by looking at her she ain't-no-ho, and finally Wordsworth's "The Solitary Reaper," which captures solitude so well, and brought to mind all the nineteenth-century prints showing a single person in a solitary scene that my grandparents used to hang on their walls.

4. William Shakespeare, Macbeth: I never much liked this play before rereading it this past spring, but now have fallen under its spell. It used to seem to me only a very dark tragedy about the horrors of ambition, but suddenly it cracked open to me in all its multiple ironies: Lady Macbeth's conscience (not so different from a description I recently read of Hitler's night terrors) rears up as a timid but relentless being after all her bold words of smashing baby's brains out, and then the initially terrifying weird sisters are shown up as rank, fumbling amateurs in the witching biz by the truly terrifying Hecate, who is responsible for the final undoing of Macbeth: against her, Lady Macbeth is nada ... and on it goes. It was also a pleasure revisiting if not entirely rereading Othello, A Midsummer's Night Dream and dipping into sections of Julius Caesar ... not to mention Romeo and Juliet --  comic in its depictions of the histrionic impatience of lovelorn adolescence--and yet understanding of its seriousness too.

5. Audre Lorde, "The Uses of the Erotic:" I loved this essay that defined the erotic as the opposite of the pornographic and suggested we gain power for social movements as we build relationships with others based on a deep intimacy that can be sexual, but also and primarily, emotional/intellectual, and always authentic.

6. Jacques Derrida, "Structure, Sign and Play:" I include this at the risk of sounding pretentious, but I did reread it this year for the first time in 30 years--and did have to read it twice to "get it"--but it held up and is really a stunning seminal piece. As with Uncle Tom's Cabin (see below), if people would just read this primary source, half the nonsense and hype about "deconstruction" would go away. We'd use terms like "kluge" instead of "bricolage"--and of course, none of this is as interesting as it was in times past as more of it has seeped (sort of) into the culture. But it was still exciting enough on revisit that I introduced it to my students last semester via Powerpoint: and some of them took cell phone shots of the slides.

7.  Virginia Woolf, "The Moth:" I read or reread several Woolf essays last year, but this minutely observed meditation on the life of 24-hour moth on her windowpane stuck with me. Beautifully described, and what seems to be my favorite word this year: astringent.

8.  Jane Austen, Persuasion: I reread all of Austen's major novels (I almost always catch most of them every year), except Sense and Sensibility in 2016. I found things to delight in all five I reread, but am choosing Persuasion because I hadn't reread it in several years and because I was so taken by the little vignette in which Anne comes across Admiral Croft staring at the painting of a ship in a shop window and critiquing it in a very literalist way for being painted out of proportion. It's these details that keep me returning to Austen.

9. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin: It's so underrated a novel and so often read through the false lens of post-Civil-War reconstructions that strip it of its savage irony, satire, dissection of human weaknesses, intelligent discussion of race and oppression, as well as the stunning moral courage of Uncle Tom, that one could scream. On top of all else, the "real" Uncle Tom is anything but an "Uncle Tom." It's far more than merely a novel of sentiment, though it's that too. Its reception since the Civil War is a case study in how to defang a threatening and subversive novel by distorting it out of all recognition. People need to read it, imho, if only to push back against how utterly it's been misrepresented by all those who "know" what it's about (except they don't). I also had a chance to dip into David Reynolds's (no relation of mine) Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America, which discusses the novel's impact around the globe. Maybe in 2017, I'll actually read the entire Mightier than the Sword.

10. Anton Chekhov, "Gooseberries:" I was so taken with this story, though I can't say that I "like" it as a pleasure read, that I used it in class this fall. Much complexity and food for thought resides in this Chaucer-like story-within-a-story on the road.

I would have definitely included Mary Shelley's Frankenstein on the list, but had to drop my reread halfway through. But I was stunned with what I read. It's extraordinary.  Runners-up also include George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm: I reread both, and they retain, more than ever, relevance to our times. Shaw's Pygmalion, a wicked satire and send-up of the class system with a satisfyingly unromantic ending, continues to satisfy, as does an old favorite, Thoreau's Walden chapter 2. Emerson's, "Self-reliance," which I reread for the first time perhaps since high school and is an eloquent argument for being true to yourself, impressed me with its enormous string of quotable statements. Naturally, I would add my own book, The Doubled Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to the reread list.

On the other hand, as I revisited other books, I found they left me, some for reasons I can't pinpoint, with a feeling of distaste: To Kill A Mockingbird, Fahrenheit 451, Of Mice and Men. Whatever feeling of delight  "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" raised in me, these raised the opposite. And I am not denying that these are good books: perhaps their messages are too heavy handed.

I found myself feeling so-so about A Wrinkle in Time, which I loved as a middle schooler, Goodbye Mr. Chips, which moved me to tears in late elementary school, and Into the Wild and Nickel and Dimed.







Ten Best Books 2016

When I first began to try to untangle my reading for the year, with the idea of compiling my own first-ever "Ten Best" list, I despaired: it seemed impossible to unknot the huge pile I'd read that seemed like too many clothes sent tumbling through the dryer, especially as, more than ever this year, I revisited books going very far into my past and read more essays, poems, short stories and plays than I have for years. I also dropped reading more books than usual (though not many). And I recognize a year as an arbitrary unit: The ten best books of this particular twelve months may not be particularly great in the grand scheme of things, though many, I believe are.

(In my next post, I tackle the "ten best rereads" of 2016.) 

This list includes many books newly published but also older books that were new to me.

My "Ten Best Books of 2016:"

1. Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace: Remarkably, I had never read or seen a movie or mini-series version of this novel. I tried twice in high school to read it, drawn by the allure of "the greatest novel ever," but soon became so confused by who was who that I dropped it. This August, I began again, primarily because the Trollope list reading group was doing it, and with the idea in mind I would listen to most of it on CD in my car as I travelled back and forth from work. I read the first quarter of the novel at the beach and then did listen to the rest on tape--and watched the Andrew Davies miniseries, which I thought was quite good. I found the novel excellent: this time the names didn't throw me at all, and I had become, over many decades, a much different reader. I recognized almost immediately that  it's not a book you plow through for plot, as I was trying to do at 16 and 17, but a book you read slowly and savor for its many detours, vignettes and details: for example, Sophia and Natasha gathering where the nurse slept on a pallet thrown on a clothes chest in a hallway alcove of the Rostov's mansion or the detailed description of a hunt, complete with the fevered competitive psychology driving the characters. I also enjoyed very much Tolstoy's ironic take-down of warfare and the "great man" theory of history. Some of his theory of history did drag and his idealized Victorian praise of Natasha for turning into a fat, adoring breeding cow at the end gave me a new appreciation for the so-called evil Helene.

2. Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping: People, including my friend Elaine Pigeon, kept recommending it to me. I put it off, fearful that a book published circa 1980 would read as dated without yet having the compensatory charm of a period piece. Finally, early this year, I took it on, and was delighted: it is a marvelous book that challenges in a whimsical way all our notions of what good homemaking is--and the writing was superb. I still feel cold, but enchanted, thinking of the some of icy--or icicly--scenes that sparkle so sharply, with such piercing splinters, an apt metaphor for the book itself in its merging of beauty and pain. On a lighter note, I now have trouble arguing that it's not a good idea to buy your nieces sparkly school shoes even in they do fall apart halfway through the school year. This book, in so many ways a fairytale, was a joy, even if it does promulgate the myth that people can go their own way alone without the torture of searing loneliness.

3. Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice: I don't read much science fiction but after a failed attempt to read a somewhat cloying (anything cloying is almost always fatal for me) Octavia Butler 1980s sci-fi novel, I decided to see what else might be out there by women, especially of a more recent vintage. I found 2013's Ancillary Justice, advertised as the only novel ever to win the Hugo, Nebula and Arthur C. Clarke awards. I took the bait, and while I am not much of a science fiction reader (though I greatly enjoyed the genre as a young teen), I found this an excellent book, both humane and, mercifully, astringent. The main character, Esk One, is what is left--the splinter left--of a spaceship, who is seeking justice against the person who destroyed the rest of her (or it). Esk doesn't fully understand gender, so tends to refer to all characters she meets and herself as she, and a big part of the delight of this book is that gender doesn't matter to Esk and hence not to us. The book starts in media res, so it takes awhile to grasp what is going on or the full extent of desolation, loss, oppression and ultimately deep humanity (ironically) of this android-like remnant of a vast machine. It's a book that has stuck with me, gotten under my skin.

4. Edmund Gordon, The Invention of Angela Carter: I read more biographies than usual this year, including, to name a few off the top of my head, of Kierkegaard, Martin Luther, Elizabeth Bishop, and Betty MacDonald (author of The Egg and I) and found them widely varying in quality from terrible to too dry to too self indulgent to too pedestrian, but the Carter bio was a marvel, "just right" in every way. I hadn't known much of anything about Carter (despite her MSS being the subject of a special exhibit at the British Library when I was there in 2015) and somewhat dreaded reading this book when it fell across my lap. But the writing was superb and intelligent and provided the context of Carter's times while never bogging down in too much detail or talking down to the reader, and with ample focus on Carter's work. Gordon mercifully kept himself out of the story and painted a sympathetic but honest portrait of a woman whose opportunities came from the social democracy of post-war Britain, chiefly including the chance at a free university education. Carter's heart always stayed with the working classes. I fell in love with Carter, flaws and all, not the least because she developed, mellowed and grew as her life went on--and because she cared deeply about writing, people without privilege, and feminism. (Gordon likens her to Woolf in that sense.) I have since read two of Carter's stories in her anthology The Bloody Chamber, both of which exuberantly optimistic, woman-centered retellings of classic fairy tales, and I just have purchased two of her novels, Nights at the Circus and Wise Children: I hope I like them! 

5. Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf: An essay on Woolf's activism during the Spanish Civil War and the influence on her of her Quaker aunt, found in an anthology, Quakers in Literature, in which I also have an essay, piqued my long-dormant interest in Woolf. I started on Lee as part of on-line group read--actually, it turned out in the end to be just my friend Ellen Moody and me-- and found it a superb biography that has me thirsting to read or reread all of Woolf--I am more impressed than ever with Woolf as a feminist, pacifist and a writer grappling with the problem of what standard narrative leaves out, especially of woman's experience, be it in biography, memoir or novel. Woolf approached novels less with a story to tell (though she had that) than a problem to solve: how to write of the many moments of silence or "non-being" in a woman's life, how to write like a painter, how to capture the many selves that comprise one person. Like Gordon's, this bio is intelligent and places Woolf in the context of her times. Really a superior read.

6. Tim Parks, A Literary Tour of Italy: Coincidentally, I read this collection of essays about the same time I had to teach a class on Dante's inferno: Parks on Dante is excellent. I didn't know much about Italian literature before this book but now know, if not a great deal, far more. Parks covers a wide range of figures from Boccaccio to Mussolini, including some visual artists, and offered me the first definition of fascist art that actually made sense. Parks is insightful, intelligent and has read widely in Italian literature: he does focus, however, almost exclusively on men.

7. Adam Zagajewski, Slight Exaggeration: Zagajewski is a Polish poet, and at first I had a hard time entering into these essays, which are in fact one long essay/memoir, fluid rather than divided into units, more like a Chinese than an American meal. All the ingredients are tossed together and flavor each other, and gradually create a whole. Zagajewski deals with art, loss, history, the profound sense of displacement he experienced as part of a Polish family sent shortly before his birth to colonize a section of Germany annexed for Poland by the Soviets. I found this book growing on me more and more as I read it, and found myself underlining statement after statement. Zagajewski is an unashamed intellectual, and if he name drops a bit much, that's OK: this book is filled with acute, intelligent and felt observations. I have read so many books this year largely filled with cliches or mostly (in reality) empty of ideas, that this rare, dense, rich work made a deeply satisfying dinner.

8. Pope Francis, The Name of God is Mercy: I am not Roman Catholic, and as a reviewer, I read many religion books. This one, which I didn't review, stood out from the year's (at best) mediocre collection. Francis is the antidote to Trump and a shining light in this world, a pure beacon of love, humility and mercy. His goodness shines out in this book, filled with selections from Francis's homilies and gentle, never judgmental dialogues with atheists and persons of other faiths. My heart was deeply moved by Francis's sincerity, love, and lack of ego. If more Christians behaved like this pope, the world would be transformed--and a Trump would never be elected president.

9. Charlotte Smith, The Old Manor House: I read this precursor to Jane Austen out loud to Roger this spring and summer during car trips. What a delightful book, filled with edge-of-the-seat plot turns and condemnations of war (when will war satires ever begin to end wars) as well as satire of the social cruelties built into hierarchies. The gentle Monimia, oppressed by her evil aunt, and even kept locked at night in a tower, is a prototype for Fanny Price in Austen's Mansfield Park. She and Orlando fall in love, he gets sent to fight in the American Revolution and following that many adventures, both comic, tragic and, most of all, surprising, occur before matters sort themselves out. The  nature writing is lovely, the plot very lively and unlike Austen, Smith's scope is broad, sweeping in warfare in America, servants and criminals into the fold. 

10. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space: This mid-twentieth book is Bachelard's extended meditation on spaces in houses, how they function as archetypes, and the effects they have on us. It's an odd book to read 50-some years after its publication, written at the very end of life by a man born the same year (1882) as Virginia Woolf and filled with the obsessive mid-century fixation with Freud and phenomenology. It reads as a bit quaint, as we are no longer so Freud-fixated, and is quaint as well because Bachelard's world--such as going down into the basement with a candle as a child--is no longer our own. All the same, many of the archetypes resonate, it's a compelling book (is there a reason Mr. Woodhouse is so fascinated with curio cases of objects?) and I began to understand why I fell in love with the Little House series as a child. The house archetype is powerful, and I am surprised is not more written about.

Runners up: Gilles Deleuzes' Desert Islands and other Essays may have displaced The Poetics of Space, except that I jumped into the Deleuze here and there, reading what interested me rather than the whole set of essays. But what I read I enjoyed and thought about. I read Elena Ferrante's Days of Abandonment, about a woman with two school age children whose husband leaves her for a younger lover. It's a powerful book that stuck with me, unflinching, with the all-important astringency, never cloying, but somehow, I felt an emptiness at the center of it I couldn't shake. I think maybe it was the wrong book for me to start with, and I would better enjoy her more overtly "political" novels that deal with working class life. I am encouraged to read more of her. On a completely different note, because it's a completely different kind of book in temperament, I enjoyed Rebecca Smith's The Jane Austen Writer's Club, a book that derives writing advice and inspiration from Jane Austen's novels and letters. It was a sheer pleasure simply to read the many passages from Austen she quotes and to discover how much solid advice on good writing you can glean from Austen, supporting the idea that she carefully studied her craft. Finally, an anthology of short stories came out this year edited by Ross E. Lockhart, called The Eternal Frankenstein, all riffing one way or another off of the original novel. The quality of the writing (often by academics) is high and many of the stories quite interesting.






















Saturday, November 19, 2016

The election as gender war: Was Clinton Aunt Polly?


I am admittedly a pessimist (or a realist) but as I ponder the choice of Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor, a man who doesn't even have to be confirmed by Congress, I imagine World War III must be the goal, or at least an all-out Samuel Huntington style "clash of civilizations" war against Islam--and given more than a billion Muslims, how is that not a world war? I saw in The New York Times that Flynn thinks Islam (not radical Islam but Islam itself) is a "malignant cancer," calls Islamic militancy a "global" and "existential" threat, and argues that Islam is an "ideology" not a religion. I frankly don't think it's overreacting to be worried.

I wondered: what could be worse than what Bush II managed? He gifted us with a disastrous war in Iraq and global economic meltdown.  How could it get worse? Now that Bush and his cronies are starting to look like moderate centrists, how could Trump top him? What's left? 

It came to me: World War III. These guys are so testosterone laden you know that if they get us into a war, they're going to lob nuclear bombs: let's just hope it's limited.

Let's hope they don't blow us back to the stone age. What do you think? Odds? The fun ends for them too when that happens, so maybe we have hope ...

In yoga class, we woman discussed all the young men we know either in the army, or with strong army "buds," who voted for Trump. I thought of my son's friend from Olney Friends School, Yuxi, who joined the army to gain US citizenship (ironic, as he is the graduate of a Quaker school) and came to visit us this spring. He said everyone but everyone on his army base was crazy for Trump, so he too was going to vote for Trump too. My nephew in the National Guard, normally a highly sane person, was all Trump all the time. My Quaker yoga teacher's Quaker raised son was all set to vote Trump under the influence of his oil rig buddies: it's not clear, however, that he was registered to vote. And the stories go on. 

My epiphany hit, naturally a sudden bolt of revelation. The election, I realized, was the ultimate gender battle. The mommy/school marm archetype who wasn't going to let the boys play with guns, or have any fun, faced off against the chest-banging savage (apologies to savages everywhere) who was all about "c'mon guys, let's hunt us some Orc!!"

It's come clear: anybody but "Aunt Polly" Clinton would have stood a chance (except maybe Elizabeth Warren). An All-American Tom Sawyer drama played out, only this one with far, far more insidious overtones.


We should--we really should--have run Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden. As a woman who would have loved to see a woman elected, I hate to say that.

But we really weren't ready for a woman president. The guys wouldn't have it. Nor would many of the gals. She's "coming for our guns" had a deeper resonance that we knew. She might make us do our homework too. 

"Aunt Polly" Clinton. I voted for her, but it wasn't going to happen.

The men voted for someone in the John Elredge mode, whose publisher described his book Wild at Heart as follows:

"A formidable answer to an age-old question: How can a man make himself tolerable and useful while accepting and expressing his primordial maleness--the searching and aggressive urges to conquer what needs subduing, protect the vulnerable, fix what is broken, compete and risk what demands to be risked in himself and the world? The author’s message is set in the Christian tradition without being controlled by its ideology. Eldredge believes that institutions can oppress a man’s heart and keep society from benefiting from his fierce desire to love, do good, fight evil, and go beyond the limits."

 Trump clearly appealed to that.

He signaled he'd take care of her.
Of course, as Christianity Today put it, 

"Far from revealing the vigor of the Almighty, Eldredge removes it… . Eldredge has employed the reverse of John the Baptist's axiom: In order for men to increase, God must decrease."

But plenty of evangelicals voted for Trump.

So now we are faced with the possibility of World War III. 

When I saw Trump at the rally held at Ohio University Eastern  over the summer, he did ramble on at length about it being weak and foolish not to water board and torture prisoners because the terrorists "put people in cages and burn them alive." What's a little water boarding to that? Now that he's in power, he's doing what he said or at least putting in people who are of that mindset.

I want to believe there's going to be a good outcome to all this. I remember after 9/11, when I had to face, sadly, that it was the work of Middle Eastern terrorists, that we'd have to lob a few bombs on someone, probably Afghanistan. I comforted myself that we would drop a few bombs and go home, having made our statement.

How wrong I was. So now I fear my own optimism: Maybe we won't have a major war.

But, on the other hand, I do believe in miracles and if there ever were a moment ... . What do you think? 


Friday, November 11, 2016

Wendell Berry: Solace

As I move from numbed to grieved, this poem, sent by by good cyber-friend Elaine Pigeon, offers solace. The photos show my home:

"Leavings"
  by Wendell Berry

"Yes, though hope is our duty,
let us live a while without it
to show ourselves we can.
Let us see that, without hope,
we still are well. Let hopelessness
shrink us to our proper size.
Without it we are half as large
as yesterday, and the world 
is twice as large. My small
place grows immense as I walk
upon it without hope.
Our springtime rue anemones
as I walk among them, hoping
not even to live, are beautiful
as Eden, and I their kinsman
am immortal in their moment.

"as beautiful as Eden, and I their kinsman am immortal in their moment."


Out of charity let us pray
for the great ones of politics
and war, the intellectuals,
scientists, and advisors,
the golden industrialists,
the CEOs, that they too
may wake to a day without hope
that in their smallness they
may know the greatness of Earth
and Heaven by which they so far
live, that they may see
themselves in their enemies,
and from their great wants fallen
know the small immortal
joys of beasts and birds."

HT: Elaine Pigeon

 "the small immortal joy of beasts"


Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Election yesterday: the bell tolls

I thought I would wake up this morning to metaphoric happy bells ringing in our first female President.

I thought my greatest worries would be Clinton staying on a progressive and peaceful path.

Completely wrong.

The near-term future is uncertain.

I am expecting the worst and hoping for the best.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Election tomorrow

Tomorrow, thank God, is election day in the most stunning Presidential election in living memory and perhaps in the history of our country. The news of the first major-party nomination of a woman presidential candidate, remarkable in itself, has been utterly overshadowed by her opponent, the U.S.'s first brush with an unfettered demagogue contemptuous of U.S. democratic law and norms, mocker of the disabled, women, minorities, prisoners of war and fallen soldiers, coming within a hair's-breadth of power. Adding to the spectacle and the terror,  Brexit occurred in the midst of this, harbinger of the real possibility that the unthinkable could occur here too in a world where the average citizen has been effectively disenfranchised for far too long and may lash out with the wrecking ball at hand.

We face tomorrow hopeful but with the knowledge it could go either way. If the election goes the way I hope, in which a moderate, center-left lawyer, former senator and former Secretary of State wins the prize, I believe we should do the following:

First, take a moment to celebrate. This will be a victory. The apocalypse will have been thwarted. Instead of living in constant dread, we ought to have at least moment of high spirits before we get back to work. Yes, the monster is still there and Clinton will be ruthlessly opposed, but yet she will have power: the power of executive appointments, the power of the Presidential pulpit, the power to set the tone in the executive branch, the power in hundreds of subtle way to influence federal departments to head in directions that are pro-people. She will have the power to propose a budget and a legislative agenda. And if the worst happens and she can't get a Supreme Court nominee through, at least her presence will have blocked whatever the Republicans would have put forth.

Second, fight back against the rhetoric that government is fundamentally bad, fundamentally evil, inherently some hybrid of the "beast" in Revelation and Stalinist "socialism." Every time I go past the poster on the Young Republican bulletin board at a college where I teach, I feel a rise of anger at the poster that reads "Taxation is Theft," (a "gotcha" variation on the old socialist slogan "property is theft") not simply because I disagree (I do disagree, but can tolerate disagreement) but because it seems to me an unchallenged lie: in fact, not paying taxes is theft of the worst sort, theft from your country. We need to fight back against the notion that "government is the problem." In fact, to sober minds, sound government is a good and a gift.

In that vein, I like a wording, that could become a slogan, that I have been hearing more: whenever basic government spending is attacked, such as on education, roads, libraries, health care, as "socialism," people are saying: "It's civilization, not socialism."

Government spending long predates socialism.
"Government spending is civilization not socialism."
It is what civilized nations do.

After celebrating an election (I hope) and standing up for government as civilization, the third step will be keeping our eyes open.

First, we know the crazed elements in this country will not stop their ruthless, relentless campaign to undermine all progress. Moreover, we know that probably about 40% of voters will vote for Trump. He may go away, but, sadly, we have to expect another demagogue to follow.  The election has laid bare to what extent Trump is nothing new: he is a type well-known to Europeans, well understood by great writers. There's a surfeit of parallels, a huge body of literature to describe a person like him. We have been fortunate so far in this country not to have let his likes grab ultimate power, but his type is out there. The next one is likely to learn from Trump's mistakes and successes and thus be even more dangerous.

Second, as I think about the parallels between Clinton and Jane Austen's Fanny Price, while we sympathize with their sufferings, their intelligence, the way they both succeed because of what they learn from the unfairness and cruelty with which they have been treated in their privileged spheres, we don't, in either case, know the end of the story. Will Fanny and Clinton, even with hearts in the right place,  ameliorate and challenge the worst effects of the system or reinforce the system? That's the open question: we will need to keep the pressure on Clinton so that she stays true, as far as she can, to her progressive promises.

Perhaps in two days we will wake up and this blog will be so much dust in the wind. In the meantime, I remain optimistic.


Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Denial: Facts are ethical

Roger and I recently saw Denial, the story of holocaust denier David Irving's libel lawsuit against scholar Deborah E. Lipstadt. The movie is worth noting for its ethical core.

Rachel Weisz plays Deborah Lipstadt

Admittedly, there's much to annoy about this movie. Lipstadt's role is not well-scripted, so she comes across as an emotional child-woman (an image reinforced by what was apparently meant to be a 1990s-style permed bob cut but looks more like the wayward curls of a Shirley Temple). As a child-woman and an overly-emotional American, she has to be reined in and schooled by the wiser and more reasoned British (mostly) men on her legal team. The brilliant and morally perfect, as well as avuncular English barrister, Richard Rampton, played by Tom Wilkinson, particularly brings her to gentle heel. While she is not ritually humiliated, for which I give the movie credit, the contrition of her apology once she sees the folly of her ways has an unsettling note of abjection.  

Wilkinson as Rampton gathers the facts at Auschwitz while Lipstadt emotes. Yes the gender stereotypes grate.

In a better movie, we would feel Deborah's outrage and pain at her legal team's strategy. If the movie had been more successful, we as an audience would initially feel she should be able to say her piece in court rather than be muzzled. We would feel that she should, as she would like to do but is forbidden, be able to bring forward Holocaust survivors to prove that Irving is wrong.

In a better movie, the legal team's visit to Auschwitz would pack the emotional punch the filmmakers clearly intended and reinforce our sense that Lipstadt is justified in her righteous anger. Yet it falls flat. That's too bad, because having visited a concentration camp myself (Sachenhausen) I know what a deeply sobering impact such a place can have.

What does work is the film's moral core. There's never any question that Lipstadt is right and Irving wrong, that the Holocaust happened and that denying it is the worst kind of canard. The film makes a convincing, one might even say passionate, ethical case for the use of reason and strategy: winning over evil is far more important than expressing our righteous anger, blasting the truth out or indulging our outrage that a pernicious lie is being treated seriously in a court of law. What matters is winning, not for winning's sake or ego gratification, but so that the lie is smashed, such that that next time it rears up it becomes all the more difficult to tell the lie with any credibility.

The movie shows that to win--to crush the lie of David Irving--it's important to marshall facts, to do hard work and careful research, to keep our emotions, no matter how justified, in check and under control. It is heartening to see in England, at least in this case, a legal system that works, where truth wins and competence matters--and the film shows how important that is. 

Timothy Spall as David Irving. He's shot as a flaccid creep.

The focus on fact seems important to emphasize because we live in a world awash in emotionalism, so much so that one of our Presidential candidates seems to have no control over his twitching, twittering fingers,  a world where personality and "identity" shout down sober reality. As Christoper Hedges put in Truthdig ("American Irrationalism," Nov. 1, 2016):


"Political, intellectual and cultural discourse has been replaced with spectacle. Emotionalism and sensationalism are prized over truth." 

Agreed. While the alt-right or the Neo-Nazis might hope to reduce the holocaust's truth to whatever side can act more aggrieved, be more snide or derisive, or shout louder, to win because their "narrative"  gains "traction" in cyberspace, in fact, the movie says,  documenting the truth is how we defeat evil.

That may be an old-fashioned worldview, but it also the foundation of scholarship--that the careful compilation of verifiable facts matters--and truth is the foundation of democracy. It's also the foundation of the good life: we cannot prosper if we rush into wars or economic policies that are based on blatant fantasies.

The movie also does a good job of exposing Irving for the mocking racist, misogynist and anti-Semite he is. I was startled at his similarities to Trump in what were restagings of speeches he gave. He was also remarkably like Trump in his inability to live in reality: he immediately "spun" his resounding defeat in court as a victory. Well, why not, if facts don't count?

While I value emotion, I long for a society in which its importance is subordinated to truth.  Denial, though a flawed film, provides a decent template for how we can achieve that. 

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Life Imitates Art: Hillary Clinton as Fanny Price

I saw Michael Moore in Trumpland last night and thought about Jane Austen.

Moore's one-man filmed show was an appreciation of Hillary Clinton, and by extension, all women. Moore showed more charisma than I have seen before by speaking with passion and conviction, and he managed to get beyond his worst flaw (and no doubt what has made him a "safe" liberal icon), the tendency to mourn what has already passed ... This film, instead, looks with hope to the future. 

I found an Austenian quality in the way he empathized with the underdog. He imagined how it might feel to be Hillary Clinton, human being, and in doing, he, to my mind, evoked Clinton as Fanny Price. While Moore never mentions Austen or Fanny, he shows us a Clinton who, if she has not suffered the pains of tyranny (and perhaps she has, giving up her last name and chased back as First Lady to the tea parties), and neglect, has been ridiculed, scorned, and misunderstood, and he casts shame too on her mockers, doing it all, ala Austen, in a comic vein. 

Fanny Price is the poor relation, the person who enters the Great House (White House?) the wrong way, through a none-too-charitable charity. She is Sonya in War and Peace, another poor relation, but unlike Sonya in the later novel, Fanny comes to us with a full interiority: Austen, in fact, tells the story of Mansfield Park from this minor character's point of view. 

To the Bertrams, the wealthy heirs of Mansfield Park, and Aunt Norris, Fanny registers as little more than the secretive creepmouse of Mrs. Norris's fancy. One of Mrs. Norris's descriptions of Fanny has more than an echo of criticisms often flung at Clinton:

she certainly has ... a spirit of secrecy, and independence .... about her, which I would advise her to get the better of. 
Having suffered "the pains of tyranny, of ridicule and neglect" is it any wonder that Fanny--or Clinton--might become secretive and self-protective?

Moore's Clinton has suffered the humiliation of having her health care proposals rejected and scorned, even as they would have, in his estimation, saved a million lives during the past 20 years. While she has worked tirelessly for women, children and the downtrodden, she has been attacked as a murderer (she has, Moore says, 46 murders to her name, according to conspiracy websites: that's the kick-ass woman I want as Commander-in-Chief, Moore declares to laughter); in addition, she has had her accomplishments, second perhaps only to FDR's in the run-up to a presidency, belittled and scorned, and this most scrutinized and almost squeaky clean woman has been called "liar" and "crooked" by perhaps the biggest serial liar(s) ever to run for president. One cannot help but think of Fanny, always doing for others, yet labeled mercilessly by Mrs. Norris as selfish and thoughtless.

Moore, like Austen, shows us a human being behind a type, be it a powerful woman or a poor relation, who is often seen as not quite human. (Sonya's treatment in War and Peace, and this from the "good" Mrs. Rostov, underscores the grim life of the poor relation.)

In Moore's telling, Clinton has been waiting and remembering ... always remembering ... and biding her time, playing the long game. This too is Fanny Price. We see Fanny in her room without a fire (denied by Mrs. Norris, and bringing to mind, in one of her letters, Austen's delight at a fire in the library at Godmersham) amid the cheap cast offs and kitsch her cousins have carelessly given her: visceral memories of her treatment. She nevertheless builds a life for herself, as Clinton has.

Fanny triumphs because her suffering has built character. She has learned to be strong, to think of others, to understand that the world does not revolve around her, that she is not entitled to even a fire on a cold day. As the spoiled Bertrams and Crawfords implode around her, unable to comprehend that the world is not theirs for the having, Fanny listens, learns and makes herself useful: when the crisis comes she is indispensable because she has an ethical core. As the spoiled, entitled Donald Trump implodes, Clinton's strength becomes all the more apparent, and she too becomes our indispensable center. We have no one else to turn to: who knew?

Clinton, you may protest, has been much more privileged than Fanny Price, but I would argue their situations are more alike than not: both "lucked into" a move up the class ladder; both function/ed on the peripheries of power (Fanny ended up in the bosom of very wealthy family). Neither Fanny nor Clinton has been considered quite legitimate in their roles (how dare a First Lady presume to escape the rigid confines of garden parties? how dare a poor relation ... dare anything?), and each has experienced privilege far beyond the average person, but also deep and unfair scorn. Both have maintained an ethical outlook through it all.

Fanny wins the prize she wants: Edmund, and a "legitimate" place in the Bertram family through marriage to him, and probably--or so I suspect--becomes mistress of Mansfield Park (Tom, the presumptive heir, is over-determined to die childless one way or another). Clinton is close to her own prize: she doesn't have it yet, but it looks in this instance, like character and competence just might be rewarded.

(As an aside, one of the film's unintentional ironies is that Wilmington, where it's set, is home to a Quaker college, aptly named Wilmington. Much of the audience looked not like the stereotypical ex-factory worker Moore sought, but like college students and faculty.)

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Life imitates art: what character is Trump, Ryan, Clinton?

With only four weeks left to the most bizarre election in a lifetime, I have been thinking about life imitating art, and specifically what literary characters our political stars resemble. My list so far:

Donald Trump: The Great Gatsby's Tom Buchanan on steroids. Tom is rich, with a string of polo ponies and a lavish brick colonial house in Long Island. He stands on his front porch with a swaggering air of command. He is a master of the universe. The world exists to serve him.




He is also a racist: When we first meet him, he  rants about the "Nordics" being overwhelmed by the "colored" races. He has read Goddard's The Rise of the Colored Empires, a barely veiled reference to a real book by Stoddard,  The Rising Tide of Color against White Supremacy. Nick Carraway, the narrator, dismisses this ideology as pathetic and outdated, but oddly, it never seems to go out of style.

Tom is a moron. In a particularly apt insult, Nick says he reached his high point in life as a football star at Yale.

Tom thinks woman are his for the taking. Whether he or they are married makes no difference. He is also a brute: Daisy characterizes him that way and we witness him "breaking" his mistress Myrtle's nose as blood flows all over. It's not a stretch to imagine him grabbing "pussy."

Tom goes on the offensive as the dominant male when he it penetrates his dim brain that his wife has been having an affair with Gatsby. He strikes hard with words at Gatsby as a non-Nordic and jeeringly suggests that if Daisy and Gatsby get together, interracial marriage will be next. He is a bully who goes for the jugular. Gatsby, an upstart bootlegger, looks like a class act beside him. 

Famously, Tom doesn't care how much wreckage he leaves behind. If little people are destroyed, what difference: he can always retreat into his vast wealth.

Tom lacks self-awareness. He can't, for instance, understand why Nick, who he likes and respects as a college friend and member of his "Nordic" class, might despise him. 

My students often direct their ire at Daisy, calling her a "spoiled brat." But Fitzgerald points us to that buzzkill Tom as the villain of the piece. Sadly, Tom Buchanans remain with us and run for President.

I probably dislike Paul Ryan even more intensely than Trump, who, in the Hitler mode, is at least honest. (I think of the line in Wiesel's Night when a Jewish character in a concentration camp says that Hitler is the only one he can trust, because he is the only one who hasn't lied to the Jews.)  I can't read a statement by or look at a picture of the wide-eyed opportunist Paul Ryan  without thinking of the repulsive little boy in Jane Eyre who understand the rewards of hypocrisy. Mr. Brocklehurst, overseer of the harsh Lowood School where Jane is sent, says to her:
  I have a little boy, younger than you, who knows six Psalms by heart: and when you ask him which he would rather have, a gingerbread-nut to eat or a verse of a Psalm to learn, he says: ‘Oh! the verse of a Psalm! angels sing Psalms;’ says he, ‘I wish to be a little angel here below;’ he then gets two nuts in recompense for his infant piety.



As for Mr Brocklehurst, one of the most repulsive characters in literature: he is Ted Cruz. Let's mouth Christian pieties while inflicting suffering on others and living in comfort ourself. It's good for other people to freeze and starve: it motivates them and builds character.

As I watched Hillary Clinton in the last debate, stalked by Trump and enduring every insult hurled at her, I couldn't help but think of Cersei's walk of shame in Game of Thrones. Clinton might as well have been stripped naked and pelted with rotten tomatoes. Will the ritual humiliation she has been forced to undergo allow the public to accept her as president? 



Cersei is now queen, though at the price of being, like Lady Macbeth "unsexed:" the dudes who write the show naturally blame her for her son's suicide and she is left without a child to make her acceptable to the male mind. While I condemn the violence she inflicts (though I hardly blame her for her son’s death), she is a woman who takes matters in her own hands, who, in Clinton's words, "dares to compete." Cersei, without motherhood, probably will fare badly on the throne, and after all, no strong woman in that series can go unpunished. What of Clinton: will having a daughter and grandchildren and a husband save her? Or will she too have to go down?

What other characters do our political players bring to mind?



Wednesday, September 21, 2016

John Le Carre as a woman's writer: the vulnerability of the body

Ellen Moody mentioned John le Carre  functioning as a woman's writer. I have been thinking about this while watching the mini-series The Night Manager, based on a le Carre novel of the same name. However, it was not until I watched the first episode in season four of the series Luther with my husband that I understood how le Carre reflects a woman's stance.

Luther, a British series, focuses on the angst-ridden policeman Luther (Idris Elba), who investigates violent crimes. The season's opening episode involves a serial killer/cannibal of the most gruesome sort, who eats pieces of his victims' bodies. Although officially not working as a police officer, Luther is soon on the trail.

In The Night Manager, Jonathan Price (Tom Hiddleston), the British night manager of a Cairo hotel, is recruited by Angela Burr (Olivia Coleman), who runs a somewhat maverick British intelligence group, to infiltrate and bring down Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie), a powerful an ruthless illegal arms dealer. 




Jonathan and Jed, center, have bodies that are painfully vulnerable to abuse by alpha male Roper, on the left.


The Night Manager evokes high levels of anxiety on behalf of the main character, Jonathan, because he is living in close quarters with a sociopath (Roper) who will brutally  torture and murder him out if he suspects him of betrayal. To make matters worse, Jonathan falls in love with Jed (Elizabeth Debicki), Roper's highly off-limits American mistress, and she with him. They take extreme risks to be with each other. We worry that Roper will find out they are in love and discover Jonathan is a government agent. Meanwhile we also know that corrupt intelligence officers high in the British secret service are in  Roper's pay and will betray Jonathan if they find out about him. The strong, rather than protect the weak, side with the strong.

 The Night Manager may be more riveting and anxiety provoking than Luther because it is better directed (Susanne Bier, the director, won an Emmy for the series.) However,  there's more to the story than good direction, and the high tension the le Carre evokes come from fundamentally reflecting a female point of view.

As I watched Luther, with little anxious despite the machinations of a serial killer, I realized that I was comforted because of Luther's god-like (male) qualities. For all his various inner angsts, we know he is invincible. He is a crack cop, better than anyone: against him, what mere serial killer has a chance? He keeps London as safe as it can be kept.


Luther's body is protected, not vulnerable and is aggressive rather than aggressed upon. Here abducts someone boldly.


Jonathan, on the hand, exudes vulnerability. He's gentle, not tough, a hotel manager, not a trained police officer. He's sensitive, without (like Luther, who also is caring) being hardened. Watching his unprotected body as he walks beside Roper, one feels a primal fear for him: he has no real way to defend himself. He is in the position of the woman, his body at the mercy of a nearby male who claims aggressive ownership over it. Over and over we see him vulnerable. (This is problematized because he does kill a man, perhaps necessary to make him palatable, but the overall thrust of Jonathan is vulnerability.)

Roper, of course, does not exert sexual ownership over Jonathan, but he does openly exert alpha male control. He renames Jonathan without thinking to ask him what name he would like, insists he participate in corporate crimes that make him vulnerable to arrest, and demands that he be absorbed into Roper's plans and organizations and that he adjust to them without question. Jonathan is there for one reason: to serve Roper. He is expected to have no agency outside of Roper's desires. He does (or is expected to do) whatever Roper tells him. All of this makes him like a woman. Like a woman, he smiles often and makes himself pleasant, agreeable and non-threatening to Roper through words and body language. 

Price is supported by other vulnerable people who happen to be women: Angela Burr is visibly, heavily pregnant and also under attack by higher-ups in British intelligence for getting too close to Roper. Jed, Roper's girlfriend, is unhappy and has a body equally as vulnerable to assault as Jonathan's, as well as a young son her work as Roper's mistress supports.  I may have some issues with using motherhood to buttress the moral worth of female characters, but it underlines their bodily vulnerability. As we see during an attack on Roper's young son, children's bodies, like women's, are easily assaulted.

It's hard not to feel acute anxiety over the fate of these vulnerable people fighting Roper, especially Jonathan and Jed, who are so physically close so often to a ruthless man. We feel viscerally their bodily weakness, the risks they are taking and the courage they display.

I find it difficult to feel as acutely over Luther, who blankets us in the sense that he is strong and invulnerable, that he will take care of the people in the series and hence of us, the viewer. This is the male stance, ultimately tough and impregnable. It argues, using an individual, that strong, violent males (and by extension groups of strong violent males, ie armies) are what keep us safe. 

Le Carre's argument, that the strong alpha male ultimately threatens, rather than protects us, seems to me more far more realistic than the protective capabilities of the alpha male. As Le Carre shows, violent men inside and outside of legitimate organizations work together to oppress the rest of us: they aren't enemies to evil, they are its friends. And as the protagonists in the The Night Manager illustrate, women (and most men), instead of trying to emulate the violent alpha male, should be using their brains to defeat violence, rather than trying to hide behind the faux protection violence offers. Feminism took a very wrong turn when it decided that its role model would be the ruthless female CEO in spiked heels who outdoes that most ruthless male CEO. Instead, and more realistically, we should, like Le Carre, try to show the inherent problems with the accumulation of power/violence into too few hands-- and insist on other solutions. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

On biography: Woolf and Fell

In participating in an on-line group read of Hermione Lee's biography of Virginia Woolf, I've also been part of a larger conversation about biography: Do we approach biography primarily through the lens of a puzzle or a question or through an emotional identification with the subject?



Virginia Woolf had a fascination with biography. This shouldn't surprise us: Woolf's father, Leslie Stephen, laid his claim to fame in part on biography: he was the first editor of the Dictionary of National Biography and wrote many of the entries for it. Woolf, in turned, strained to envision a biography that would push beyond the hagiographic and genteel Victorian conventions of her father's day to arrive at a more authentic depiction of a subject's life. 

Woolf explored what she called moments of being and non-being. Non-being she understood as the normal, repetitive routines of life that we largely forget--she mentions her daily walks in Hyde Park as a child as examples of non-being. She knows she took them, but largely can't remember anything about most of them. I think of doing laundry as a college and graduate student: I know I did it, but mostly have forgotten any details. In contrast, Woolf identified moments of being as those moments we remember, moments that are luminous. She tried, in part through voluminous journaling, to capture are many moments as possible, so that they could (possibly) become moments of being.

Yet she recognized in women's lives in her era that much of existence was in moments of non-being. How does one capture these moments and give them being? Woolf  attempted to create a form of biography that would tell the reality of a woman's life, including non-being, by writing a fictional biography of a fictional subject: it's a fascinating example of how she uses fiction to work out intellectual problems.  In this work, she gets beyond hagiography to show the reality (ironically through fiction) of a woman's life.

 Biography being much on my own mind, I am thinking of trying to write a short sketch of a real historical woman (rather than create a fiction), in which I would enter into her life primarily emotionally rather than through a question or a puzzle. I finally, in one of those flashes of insight one has, settled on Margaret Fell, one of the founders of Quakerism and later wife of George Fox, usually credited as Quakerism's founder, and am reading a biography of her written in 1913.

My flash of insight--and this is where I am willing to get fictional as I simply at this point don't "know"--is that while Fell was an extremely intelligent woman (definitely a foremother to Woolf) and deeply, sincerely, a religious woman,  the emotion that may have driven her was being in love with Fox. That's a woman's trope, and for that reason might be denigrated, but the feminist in me wants to celebrate it as a worthy component of an intelligent, active, ethical life. I see it too as a parallel to Woolf--love for men and women was a deeply motivating force in her life's work.

Margaret Fell, from an etching in which she and other family members wait on a great man, presumably Fox.

It also seems to me a parallel exists in Ruth von Kleist-Retzow being in love (if we allow, as we should, a 60-something woman and grandmother  sexual feelings) with Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In Ruth's case, the best she could do was to arrange an engagement between Bonhoeffer and a granddaughter who reminded her of herself, and satisfy herself vicariously with that. Margaret, though a decade older than Fox, was actually able to marry him after her first husband died.

Will I do this? I don't know: I have a busy fall schedule: but I find it interesting to think about. I also wonder why I lit on another religious figure rather than a literary figure. I also don't know enough about Fell to know if I truly have an emotional affinity. Jane Austen would be another possibility. Who would you do?